The Art Of The Possible: What Is This We Call Consciousness?

“I was just thinking about myself thinking about myself.”

It was a line that led to many back and forth emails and arguments between myself (conscious about my current gig more than anything) and the writer, who insisted on leaving the conclusion of the story as it was.

In that moment, the main character in his story realized that he himself was hurrying to catch a train – putting the urgent moment in perspective in the larger context of his life as he stepped onto the platform at just the right moment in time, conscious of what a missed opportunity would entail.

It was probably one of the rare times that existentialism arose during my workday, but it was also hardly the first time anyone ever addressed the problem of consciousness – something that’s been pondered for centuries – well before neuroscience was a thing. The concept itself is one of the primary problems of philosophy.

Every conscious person around us has what we call a sense of “being me,” an individual identity setting us apart from everyone else. While this is indisputable, the age-old question is where did this sense come from? Is it in fact a sense that we tell ourselves, that arises within the body, or is it another behavior that we model off of each other? Northeastern University psychology professor Iris Berent is intent on solving the mystery using up to date scientific efforts.

“How do human brains give rise to this experience? That’s the big mystery, right?” she proposes, in a concise way, as she tackles the problem like so many before her.

The influential pop culture philosopher David Chalmers won a bet last year after he claimed that our consciousness exists beyond the realm of the physical, fueling Berent’s pursuits.

Berent has taken a slightly different approach as well – something she clarifies in her new paper, arguing that we falsely ponder the question of where our consciousness exists.

In her new article published by the journal, Neuroscience of Consciousness, she suggests that such a debate springs from what is a delusional—even if it’s a natural—bias in the way that we consider the separation, or any potential lack thereof, between both the mind and the body. After all, branches like neuroscience show that there’s much more overlap than the Stoic philosophers in Ancient Greece may have ever hoped for.

“One of the biases is dualism, intuitive dualism—the fact that we perceive minds as separate from our bodies.”

“The extent to which we look at consciousness and think that it is this really mysterious thing could very well arise from how we see it rather from what consciousness really is,” Berent explains.

“Consciousness isn’t hard. Psychology is,” she says.

The Day Mary Walked With A Zombie

Berent likes to talk about a simple experiment in perception she has conducted in her lab using the well-known “Mary and the zombie” hypothetical situation, but she throws in a twist at the end.

For those not familiar with the experiment, study participants are asked to imagine what a zombie twin of themselves would look like. In other words, imagine a creature that still has your own distinct physical features but is completely devoid of your own feelings or thoughts – what you’d look like as a movie monster.

“They intuit that the mind, consciousness included, is really separate from the physical,” Berent explains.

In her other thought experiment, the character Mary becomes a neuroscientist imbued with everything there is to know about the color spectrum and how our brains see and process color, even though, unfortunately for Mary, she lives in a world that is entirely black-and-white without hue, value or chroma.

Imagine, therefore what it is like when Mary catches her first glimpse of a red rose, a moment that seems almost out of place and time. The people who partook in this experiment suspect that she learns something beyond the bounds of what can be explained by physical or scientific phenomena.

Berent, however, remains a bit more skeptical, suggesting two additional questions to further parse their findings.

“The first question is kind of a reality check question, which is do they think Mary’s case is significant? Is it transformative? And everybody said, ‘Sure, it’s super transformative,’” says Berent.

“We also asked how likely is it that this experience will actually show up in her brain? If we scan her brain, will it light up? And it turns out that that’s exactly what people said. It will significantly register in the brain.”

“The point being, in the condition of the zombie people say, ‘no,’ (consciousness) is not physical,” Berent clarifies. “And in Mary’s condition, people say it’s physical.”

“If people change their mind in this way, it can’t possibly be that in reality consciousness has changed. It must be that there is something within the human psyche that colors how we see consciousness.”

“For me, this means that we need to be really careful before we assume that there is any real mystery going on.”

The Evolutionary History Of Duality

Berent ascribes what she says are our “delusional attitudes about bodies and minds” to “the same old psychological biases that I’ve been studying in my lab for years.”

She calls this separation of mind and body, dualism. Prior research conducted by Berent and her peers demonstrates that people with autism are actually less dualistic than those who are neurotypical, with males being generally less dualistic than females.

The fact that people are capable of carrying two different, even conflicting, systems of perception in our minds, is in fact owing to our own evolution as a species, explains Berent.

“Animals have an evolutionary advantage to be able to perceive objects, say, the bodies of their mothers,” she adds.

It is also imperative that we are able to perceive those objects that carry agency of their own as separate from the objects that surround them, Berent says. “You want to follow the mother and not a body that is inanimate” if you want to obtain the nurturance and protection that is crucial to surviving in an untamed wilderness.

This is the sort of dualism that, in time, “primes us to think about people and their minds and bodies as separate from each other. That’s one reason we think about consciousness as this ethereal thing separate from the body.”

“The point is that our perception of consciousness changes depending on the situation. And if that’s the case, there’s no way that we can trust it to reflect what our consciousness really is. It must be that our brain plays tricks on us.”

Know Thyself: Getting the Whole Picture

“Every psychology student that has ever come into my class asks if we’re going to talk about consciousness,” Berent explains.

“This is considered to be super important. This is our intimate understanding of who we are.”

Berent believes the thought experiment she outlines in her paper is in fact “the smoking gun” that intuitions about the idea of a consciousness existing beyond the body are the product of our own dualistically inclined brains.

Consciousness is likely the result of electrochemical functions happening in the brain, she says. “It’s hard for psychological reasons.”

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